Protomartyr’s “Relatives in Descent” : An Ascent to Greatness

I was first introduced to Protomartyr back in 2015 with their third release, Agent Intellect, and was instantly enamored. Their melding of post-punk, melancholy ambiance, combined with poetic delivery and atmospheric guitars dove into my senses and continues to occupy sacred real estate in my “currently listening to” pile of records. With their latest release, Relatives in Descent, Protomartyr continues to improve on what came before, expanding palatable dynamics and lyrical complexity to new heights that anchors post punk’s late 70’s/early 80’s roots to the apocalyptic realities of 21st century dread.

The album’s opener, “A Private Understanding,” subverts expectations for long-time fans of the band, opting to start off with tight, frantic drums; a marked difference to the slow-building atmosphere and/or guitars that usually open up Protomartyr’s tunes. As the guitars and Joe Casey’s vocals come in, the music feels like it’s building towards expansive, dynamic heights. The melody fluctuates from dark and menacing to somber and melancholy, with the drums continuing the opening’s frantic beat. The build is then suddenly stopped in its tracks as all the instruments are pulled back, save for an acoustic guitar, which bridges the build to a cathartic barrage of sound that is the song’s chorus. Casey sings, “People live with a private understanding/ Sorrow’s the wind blowing through/Truth is hiding in the wire.” With it’s dynamic and melodic range the song sets the tone for an album that is both a cathartic reflection our our culture’s anxieties, and a palatable fear for the outcome an uncertain future may yet bring.

The dynamic heights reached in the opener gives way to the smokey, intellectual atmosphere of a beat poetry reading set to music that compliments the speaker’s bleak outlook, “Now you know innovative thievery in parking structures…At least they are well lit.” Only the second song on the album, “Here is the Thing,” exemplifies one of the hallmarks of Protomartyr’s sound, which is the brilliant marrying of the lyrics to the music. Song structures are often not confined to typical verse/chorus standards. Rather, the music serves as a cave of sound, enveloping and, at times, overwhelming the listener, while the lyrics take center focus, providing the light that leads through.

Not enough can be said in praise of Casey’s lyrics. When read alongside the album, each track becomes enlivened; bright lights flashing onto darkened corners and seedy alleyways of a glamorous city that is starting to reveal the rot within. From beat prose espoused in “Here’s the Thing,” “My Children,” and “Up the Tower”, to the feminist ballad, “Male Plague,” Casey takes the broken fragments of our collective consciousness and reflects it back to us in an earnest attempt to make sense of the madness. Though for all the intuitive prose, Casey’s approach doesn’t shy his insights to vague corners of comfortable metaphor. His points are clear to any who bore witness to the dystopian tempest of last year’s election cycle and all that has happened since.

It should be no surprise that, in the age history may recall as the “Trumpacalypse,” politics are deeply embedded in the album’s prose. Lines like, “The river doesn’t move…It’s been leaded by snider men to make a profit from the poor,” (referencing the Flint Water Crisis) and “The liberal-minded here, they close their eyes and dream of technology and kombucha,” (a wake up call to left-wing complacency) are far from subtle. That being said, for all the somber reminders of our impending doom there are still moments of hopefulness sprinkled throughout, such as the lines, “Only in darkness does the flower take hold/it blooms at night,” from “Night-Blooming Cereus.” Casey here reminds the listener of the old adage, “It gets darkest before the dawn.”

Though, lyrically, these hopeful moments are rare, the album does find a sense of hope in melodic atmospheres. These moments are most notable in two of my favorite tracks on the album, “The Chuckler,” and “Don’t Go to Anacita.” In the former these hints of hopefulness can be found in the verses, where guitars and a light use of strings later in the song create beautiful, open textures that feel almost dreamlike. This textured layering of atmosphere is as blissful as it is transportive. The latter lends more static energy in its hopeful moments, making use of ever-changing melodic tonalities (from melancholic majors to sinister minors) leading to a chorus where the bass takes the melodic center, creating a sense of drive that you can just feel the mosh-fueled sweat dripping from.

As a whole Protomartyr’s fourth LP feels the most cohesive of their releases to date. Focused in on the confusing atmosphere of our political and cultural apocalypse, Relatives in Descent provides the listener with a respite that is both cathartic and comforting, despite it’s bleak outlook. If nothing else, it feels good to know that, with a band like Protomartyr, we have a group that “gets it” on a level that few can articulate as eloquently. Like many timeless and culturally reflective books, films, or albums, Descent is a layered piece that continues to provoke valuable insights with each recurring listen.

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Orlando-based singer/guitarist, writer, and teacher. Eternal lover of all things music and noise. I play and sing in The Grizzly Atoms, and write for the blog here from time to time.

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